Paranormal Park’ Creator Talks Writing Queer YA Horror Show – The Hollywood Reporter

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In Netflix’s new animated series Dead End: Paranormal Park, Barney — a young teen boy with an electric blue ombre — and his dog Pugsley move into a haunted amusement park where they begin working (and fighting monsters) alongside Norma, a fellow teen-turned-friend.

It sounds typical enough for a genre kids’ cartoon, yet Dead End — a colorful trip into the pains and joys of teenhood as its main trio fights off demons, ghosts and their insecurities — isn’t typical for animation.

The 10-episode adventure stars a racially-, gender- and sexuality-diverse cast, with the main ensemble led by voice actors Zach Barack (the MCU’s first openly trans actor) as Barney, Kody Kavitha as Norma, Alex Brightman as Pugsley, Emily Osment as demon Courtney, and Clinton Leupp a.k.a. Miss Coco Peru as the park’s big-haired founder Pauline Phoenix, among others. It also features guest voice appearances by Alan Cumming, Angelica Ross, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, Patrick Stump, Sam Jay, Taylor “Effy” Gibson and more.

Beyond its cast stacked full of LGBTQ+ talent, the show is a byproduct of animation’s growing interest in the webcomics space, a free market where inclusion of all kinds has seen success. This particular genre-smashing — and history-making — adaptation comes from the mind of Hamish Steele and their webcomic-turned-print graphic novel, DeadEndia.

It’s a story that’s delivered not only one of animation’s first openly trans leading characters with Barney, but a host of other representation, all tucked into a teen-ish cartoon series equal parts comedy, horror and coming of age.

Ahead of the first season, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Steele about Dead End’s approach to mental health and LGBTQ representation, doing horror in an all-ages kids show, that Patrick Stump musical episode, hopes for more seasons, and how writing one of the characters led to their own autism diagnosis.

Dead End feels like a young adult show, but that’s rare in animation. Was that what you were going for, and how did you approach this new territory if so? 

It makes me so happy that you called it YA because that realm didn’t exist until recently. We pitched the show in 2019, and we were developing it in 2018, and that realm didn’t really exist. There was some stuff like Infinity Train, but even those shows, you had to pitch them [younger]. The characters in the books were a little bit older when I wrote them, and then to pitch it, we aged them down. But over the course of developing the show, we pushed them back up to 16 to 17. Before making the show, I’d developed quite a few shows, and I love kids’ shows 100 percent, so we try to make it so that there’s nothing in the show that is inappropriate for an 8-year-old. But I think there’s an age group that cartoons just sort of abandoned for a long time, and assumed that when you get to about 12 or 13, you’re just watching adult shows. That’s fine; there’s a lot of adult programming that’s good. But there’s so much stuff that happens before then that’s such an important part of your life, and the thought that people will jump from Steven Universe to Euphoria — that’s such a huge jump. YA has been used for so long in books and graphic novels, and this being an adaptation of my graphic novels, it feels really nice to be allowed to say that it’s a YA kids’ show.

The horror elements helped reinforce this as a YA show versus a show for younger children. There’s that opening sequence that uses a specific horror technique and a bevy of animated monsters. How did you approach the horror knowing your audience would be broad? 

One thing we realized really early on is that, what age range finds stuff scary doesn’t make any sense. Before we did a writers room, we went to a theme park during Halloween as research, and one thing we talked about was a family in front of us during one of those interactive horror escape rooms. There was a 6 or 7-year-old, and they were loving every second, laughing and clapping. Then there was a 12 or 13-year-old, and they were clinging to their parents. Early on, when we talked about the horror in this, talking about age ranges, I always thought this is a show for spooky kids or kids that like horror. So the reasoning behind that opening minute of episode one is that it’s kind of a test for the audience. I think it’s the scariest bit in the series. If you can get past that, you’ll be fine with everything else. Some episodes are horror, and some are pure comedy, so we tried to put that all into that opening minute — a little promise of what’s to come.

From left: Zach Barack as Barney, Alex Brightman as Pugsley and Kody Kavitha as Norma

This originated as a webcomic, a medium known for stretching on a bit as there’s no actual page or time limit when producing them. How did you think about adapting your story for season one with potentially endless material? 

When I wrote the webcomic, I did think of it as having an end as I did always want to publish it somehow. The main difference is that I wrote the webcomic completely on my own, pretty much making it up as I went along. (Laughs.) I definitely knew key story beats I needed to get to, but filled in the middle. It’s one of the things I love about webcomics — they react to the audience in real-time. A good example is Logs, who becomes a big character and Barney’s love interest. He was never really intended to be. He was just a security guard on one page, but that page was far more popular than previous pages, so I expanded the role.

The main thing I was so excited about with making the show was collaboration. When I got into the writers’ room with all these very talented writers who all had their own points of view, I think it would be very silly of me to assume that the way I told the story when I was 21, making it up as I went along for a webcomic, was the best way to tell the story. So perhaps if a different studio had said, “Hey, we want to buy your book and turn it into something, but you’re not going to have a say on what it is,” I would have told them to stick to the story much closer. But getting paid to continue making stories in this world with such amazing other talents, I wanted to push everything into new directions.

This was also turned into a Cartoon Hangover short, with a different voice cast chosen before the industry had made it a more standard practice to ensure the identities of voice actors matched their characters. How were things different this time with Netflix? 

The original short was an incredible opportunity. I was completely unknown, and Cartoon Hangover had just put up a call for submissions on Tumblr, so I sent them a storyboard and they loved it. I was mostly in charge of the storyboard and getting the show finished. When it came to casting, I had some say, but they took a lot of it out of my hands. They gave me these people and said, “They’re good; we trust them.” Baby me, not wanting to rock the boat, did mostly say, “Yeah, sure.” I think the casts are really good, and I don’t want to diminish them. But it was something I’d thought about for a long time, and I always knew that if we got the chance to make the new show, I would want to recast them. Between the short and the new show, the whole comic book had happened, and the characters have changed and evolved. They got a bit younger. They had slightly different vibes. I don’t even think it was like something I had to ask Netflix, necessarily, but we all seemed to be on the same page that we would cast it authentically. I also got to have a little say in making sure that even in the dubs, we tried our best to cast authentically.

You’ve got a great musical episode that you crafted with the help of Fall Out Boy’s lead singer Patrick Stump. How did that collaboration come together? 

The musical episode was written in the same time it took to write all the other nine episodes, and we were writing it at the same time as we were casting, so we kept adjusting to focus on the strongest singers. Essentially, I wrote all the lyrics, but we didn’t know who would score it. We did think about Julian Guidetti, who is our composer for the rest of the show. He does an amazing job, but his plate was too full, so we auditioned people. On that list was Patrick Stump. I was actually worried about working with someone who was a star. I thought they might be a diva or might take too much control. But from day one of auditioning, Patrick over-delivered and was always the perfect collaborator. He was so patient, and he kept wanting to push it. We added an extra song because he was so into it. Originally, Pugsley didn’t have a song because we kept auditioning people. He was just going to have a few lines in the opening song.

But when we cast Alex, who sings both in that kind of gravelly Beetlejuice voice and his normal singing voice, I was like: We need to do a duet between Pugsley and [demon king] Temeluchus. So that song was written in maybe two or three days. There was an orchestra recording that [Stump] conducted, and he directed all of the singing as well, which was funny because the actors were given the demos two weeks before they recorded, and I know for Zach, Fall Out Boy was his first concert. So he was like, “It’s an honor, sir.” (Laughs.) Alex was like, “I learned how to sing by learning how you sing.” And Patrick was always very humble. He doesn’t mind me saying this, but I think Emily said, “Wow, you’re such a good singer. Do you do it full-time?” They didn’t really believe he was doing it. (Laughs.) But he’s done work on a Disney Jr. Spider-Man show, so he’s in this realm.

From left: (L to R) Zach Barack as Barney, Kody Kavitha as Norma and Emily Osment as Courtney

Barney is a trans teen fleeing home and having to reside in a zany amusement park. It speaks partly to the experiences of real trans adolescents, a disproportionate percentage of which make up the U.S. runaway and unhoused teen population. But you are couching that within a comedy-horror show. How did you balance this tonally to be sensitive to what’s happening but also play to the adventure element and a younger audience, who might understand it differently? 

It is definitely the element of the show that we worked on the hardest, and I think changed pretty constantly while writing the pilot. There were versions of the pilot which were much more harrowing, I suppose? We originally ended the pilot with footage of cop cars outside his house and his parents crying. Then we did versions that were far lighter and tried to soften the fact he was running away from home as much as possible to make it seem more like an adventure. One of the big changes is that in the book, he is fully running away from home, and it’s treated a little differently. For the show, it was realizing that, potentially, parents will be watching it with their children. So we wanted there to be lessons for the parents as well as the kids. We tried not to make his parents monsters or the most accepting family ever. They’re in a middle ground that I think a lot of people find themselves in, where they think they’re saying all the right things, but they’re not doing all the right things. They’ve kind of dropped the ball a little bit on unconditional love. It took us a lot of work, and it was a lot of the parents in the writers’ room who were vouching for the mum and dad characters.

I have a great relationship with my mum and dad, but in the webcomic, I was writing the parents as these kind of offscreen monsters. It’s something we tweaked, and this is sort of jumping ahead, but part of the story is that Barney did do kind of a wrong thing by running away and not telling anybody. But he does apologize for it and suffers the consequences because his life’s in danger every episode. Whereas his parents don’t apologize straight away, and they don’t see what the problem is. I don’t know if Barney’s parents are really transphobic — I think the show put some nuance to that — but it’s sometimes harder to argue with people who think of themselves as the best allies ever. Sometimes the accusation of bigotry is seen as far more toxic than the bigotry itself. It’s quite relatable, and it’s an element I’m very proud of. I love that so many shows exist in worlds that don’t have homophobia or transphobia, and they let queer characters be free and have fun. I think that’s a super valid way of telling stories, especially in kids’ media. But I also think it’s important to tell stories that treat that bigotry as the serious issue that it is — that it affects people. Treating it completely like it doesn’t exist all the time can maybe be confusing to a kid audience experiencing it. Like, “Why am I the problem, and it’s not a problem with any of these characters?”

That overtness tucked into genre feels a little unlike anything kids animation has done before with LGBTQ+ representation, especially trans rep.  

I’m shocked a little bit. In the show I was developing before this, I was told pretty blankly we couldn’t have any queer representation in it. That kind of dehumanizing feeling was the status quo in animation for so long, and I still know that every bit of queer representation you see onscreen often comes in spite of the studios or through fighting. It took me a while on this production to realize that I wasn’t fighting anybody, and if I’m not fighting anybody, how far can we go with the story? So I don’t see this show as a compromised vision in any way. Budgets and COVID and all these things aside, it’s the story we intended to tell. So if you just let people tell the stories they intend to tell, you get great stories out of it.

The show also explores mental health, things like panic attacks and social anxiety. It does it through Barney but even more, Norma, which helps illustrate these things like the spectrum they are versus a singular maybe stereotypical understanding of someone’s condition. Why did you take that approach?

A lot of the process focused on Barney, but Norma is the character I’m most proud of for a few reasons. One is that when I wrote the webcomics, I tried to make her “hashtag relatable.” I just thought this was everyone’s experience of life. So many people reached out and said, “Hey, I headcanonned her as autistic!” or “Great representation of anxiety.” I got so many comments like that when we came to write the show, I thought, Norma is autistic. So we had a consultant; we had autistic people on the crew. But every time I sent scripts or notes, the consultant said, “Wow, Hamish, you must have done so much research.” I was like, “I mean, a bit, but not really.” Long story short, I was diagnosed with autism during the show’s production, basically, thanks to Norma, because I was just writing my experiences.

Another reason I’m so proud is that I had constantly pitched shows of characters like her as the lead, and I always got the note about how female characters need to be more fun and less anxious. “Why is she so annoying? Why is she so this and that?” It always bothered me because I kept seeing these characters come out whose only flaw is that they’re a bit clumsy, but they’re super fun, awesome, great, great, great. I get it, but my experience of childhood and when I think of what it was like to be a kid, I just think of sad, lonely and awkward — and I think you can make a fun show out of that. So I’m proud of Norma and the story she goes on. And I think someone could watch our show and say it does feel like a “very special episode” a lot, but it’s just how I see the world. I think genre allows you to give these lessons in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re being preached to.

From left: Kat Khavari as Badyah, Kody Kavitha as Norma, Emily Osment as Courtney, Zach Barack as Barney and Kenny Tran as Logan

Barney and Norma make time for crushes between those demons and anxieties. It’s interesting, though, because, without any explicit identification of their sexuality, they are maybe representing different journeys as LGBTQ+ teens. Do you have plans to state their specific sexualities in the show or want to explore their diverging romantic journeys further?   

I will say, not yet. But we are hoping to explore that much more in future episodes, god willing. And we didn’t want them to have completely parallel romantic storylines. I think that would become quite boring. From Norma’s perspective, compared to Barney’s, sometimes you do have friends who all that stuff seems easy for and happens so fast to, and you’re still waiting. But then, from Barney’s point of view, we see the stress he goes through over just asking him out. So we tried to treat it like you would any relationship. That said, queer relationships are different, and I think it’s good to explore that. We may have done it the “just like everyone else” way in media, and it’s sometimes fun to explore how they’re different. One of the things that we’re hoping to explore in future seasons is the idea of, I suppose, exclusivity or the idea of other things that I guess I don’t see a lot in straight romances in media.

But I do think of season one as Barney’s story, where Norma’s kind of sneaks up behind you and then weirdly also becomes Courtney’s at the end. I think for a possible season two, the focus would shift a degree towards Norma and balance that out. We would get to know a little bit more about her struggles. Another tiny little element of this is that it’s hard to want to tell truthful, romantic storylines while the cloud of shipping follows you. Sometimes it’s hard to write what you want to write from your heart while also knowing it’s a different world in fandom sometimes. In some ways, it’s the element of the show I’m most scared about. But you have to ignore it a little bit when writing and just write what you think is correct.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Dead End: Paranormal Park is now streaming on Netflix.

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